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Craig Johnson's latest Walt Longmire novel, First Frost, has the sheriff both looking back and ahead. While dealing with with a preliminary hearing about a shooting he was involved in from the last book, he thinks back to a time right before he and pal Henry Standing Bear headed for Vietnam and they ended up in Bone Valley, a small town poisoned from its secrets. It is one of the most suspenseful books in the series. Craig, an old friend, took some time getting ready for his tour and this summer's Longmire Days to talk about going into Walt's past with The Hard Word.

SCOTT MONTGOMERY: What made you want to look at Walt and Henry right before they went to Vietnam?

CRAIG JOHNSON: I think it was a pivotal period when they were going to be facing some of the greatest challenges they’d encountered and maybe the first time they’d actually entertained the possibility of their own mortality—IE: the First Frost of their lives. The Vietnam War was central to the composition of these two men, and they were never the same afterward, which raises the question—who were they before? This isn’t the first time I’ve reached into their pasts but it's the farthest, with them only just having graduated from college they’re practically kids.

S.M.: How did the decision to weave the present-day story of Walt's hearing come into play?

C.J.: A lot of times we don’t get to see the aftermath of the more climactic endings in crime-fiction, and I wanted a follow-up on the results of Walt’s actions in The Longmire Defense. I hadn’t done much courtroom work which was interesting. Also, there are a number of overarching narrative threads that needed to be attended to which was impossible to accomplish from the vantage point of 1964 when the majority of the novel takes place. I think it was also an opportunity to do a comparison/contrast between who Walt and Henry were, and who they’ve become.    

S.M.: Since young Walt has no authority, this comes as close to feeling like a private eye story as you ever got. Was there anything playing that close to that genre opened up for you in the writing?

C.J.: Of course, I mean thematically Walt can simply point to his gun or badge and people are compelled to answer his questions, but in First Frost he’s just some big, dumb kid from Wyoming. The good news is that he and Henry both are in the absolute, peak physical condition of their lives after four years in the trenches of college football. They had to be, for them to survive Bone Valley.

S.M.: I also couldn't help but see a few echoes of the movie we're both fans of, Bad Day At Black Rock, about a town with a secret closing in on a stranger who comes in. You cited it before as a partial inspiration for your earlier book, The Dark Horse. What do you admire about that story?

C.J.: Well, what’s the old adage, there are only two types of tales—a stranger heads off on a journey or a stranger arrives in town? I know you love these movie analogies, Scott but to be honest, no. There really wasn’t any connection to Black Rock other than the obvious plot elements concerning the internment camps of WWII. 

I’ve long been intrigued by the Heart Mountain camp over near Powell here in Wyoming. I remember going over there before they built this fabulous museum and visitor center when the windows were all broken out and the doors were hanging off of the hinges in that insistent high plains winds. I could just imagine those poor folks from the coast, American citizens arriving here in that Wyoming in the winter with only what they could carry. I always figured I’d get around to eventually implementing all that research, I just didn’t know I’d move it to Arizona in 1964 when what had happened there would still have a dreadful immediacy, only twenty years after the war. 

S.M.: In just one chapter, we sense the relationship and love Walt had for his college girlfriend, Rachel Weisman. How did you go about capturing that?

C.J.: You know, there’s always the one that got away and I think for Walt, Rachel Weisman was it. There are those moments I look back and see specific times when my life could’ve taken a very different trajectory, and usually there was a woman involved. My wife, Judy is Jewish, and that society and culture have always held an interest for me that I utilized all the way back in The Cold Dish where Walt looks up at a calendar and notices it’s Yom Kippur; he seems to have a sense of Judaism that’s unique in a Wyoming Sheriff. So, where did that knowledge come from? I think Rachel was instrumental in the formulation of his sense of social justice, among other things. It’s interesting, too, in that when Vic asks Walt if he ever saw her again, he says once—I wonder when we’ll hear about that, huh?

C.J.: I completely bought young Walt and Henry. I saw their personalities I was familiar with, but their attitude was subtly different. How did you view them at that age?

I think one of my favorite exchanges in the book is when something happens and Walt says, “We should alert the authorities.” 

Henry’s response, “When has that ever worked out for us?”

There’s a touch of naivete to both of them in that they really haven’t seen what the world has in store. I think they both have their own youthful neurosis and insecurities to deal with but they’re genuinely good guys and what they lack in intelligence and craft, they make up for in altruism and muscle. They are very different in this book, but the seeds of who they’ll become are evident, which is reassuring—that First Frost may have blighted the leaves a bit, but it didn’t kill the plant.  


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